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In many languages, verbs for telling a story are based on or related to verbs for counting. There are (at least) three groups of such verbs:

  • English "recount", French "conter" and "raconter", Italian "raccontare", Spanish and Portuguese "contar"
  • German "erzählen" (a prefixed form of "zählen", to count), English "tell"
  • Hebrew "לספר" (to tell), the pi'el of the root ס-פ-ר, whose pa'al is "לספור" (to count)

I couldn't find any explanation for this parallelism. Here are some etymologies I found:

"tell":

First recorded before 900; Middle English tellen, tel(le) “to speak, talk, say, mention,” Old English tellan “to tell, relate, count”; cognate with Dutch tellen “to reckon, count,” Old Norse telja “to count, number, say,” Old High German zellēn, German zählen “to count, number”; akin to tale

"tale":

before 900; Middle English; Old English talu series, list, narrative, story; cognate with Dutch taal speech, language, German Zahl number, Old Norse tala number, speech. See tell1

"erzählen":

erzählen Vb. ‘(mündlich oder schriftlich) mit Worten ausführlich wiedergeben’. Ahd. irzellen (8. Jh.), mhd. erzel(le)n steht zunächst (ähnlich wie ahd. zellen, mhd. zeln, s. zählen) für ‘zählen, (der Reihe nach) aufzählen’, auch bei der Darstellung von Ereignissen und Taten, daher (im Rechtswesen) ‘öffentlich hersagen und verkünden’ und allgemein ‘mündlich mitteilen, berichten’. Die letztere Bedeutung ist dann allein auf erzählen übergegangen, während nhd. zählen auf den rechnerischen Bereich eingeschränkt wird; doch hält sich die alte Bedeutung ‘aufzählen’ gelegentlich bis ins 18. Jh.

English translation:

erzählen Vb. ‘(orally or in writing) extensively render in words’. Old High German irzellen (8th century), Middle High German erzel(le)n at first (similar to OHG zellen, MHG zeln, see zählen) stood for ‘count, enumerate (in order)’, also in representing events and deeds, hence (in law) ‘publicly tell and pronounce’ and generally ‘orally communicate, report’. The latter meaning then passed only to erzählen, whereas New High German zählen is restricted to the numerical field; but the old meaning ‘enumerate’ occasionally endures into the 18th century.

Despite going back to the 8th century, these etymologies don't mention any interaction between the Germanic and Romance groups (let alone the Hebrew).

My questions are:

  • Did this relationship between words for telling and counting arise separately in these three groups?
  • If so, which semantic connection led to it? Was it always something like "enumerating events and deeds"?
  • If not, how are the three groups etymologically related?
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  • There's also the English verb tell meaning to count! And the noun thereof: teller. It's sense number 6, in this Merriam Webster dictionary entry. Jul 25, 2022 at 21:36
  • Just wait til you get to reckon.
    – cmw
    Jul 26, 2022 at 3:12
  • Do you count Slavic? For instance, in Russian to count is считать, to read is читать.
    – Anixx
    Jul 28, 2022 at 2:02
  • @Araucaria-him are retail and tailor related?
    – Anixx
    Jul 28, 2022 at 2:03
  • @Anixx I'm afraid that's outside of my area of expertise! But it's an interesting question ... Jul 28, 2022 at 11:06

1 Answer 1

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The American Heritage Dictionary gives these primary definitions of count (v)

  1. To name or list (the units of a group or collection) one by one
    in order to determine a total; number.
  2. To recite numerals in ascending order up to and including: count three before firing.
  3. To include in a reckoning; take account of: ten dogs, counting the puppies.

Note that all three of these senses refer to speech. Normally it's speech about groups and their parts, which is a common topic in human discourse (as George Carlin put it, the difference between my stuff and your shit). Counting was developed before writing; both are modern technology, and together they led to census and taxation, which led in their turn to even more writing.

This is why give an account means both 'tell a story' and 'provide figures'; and why both accountants and grammarians can count Sri Ganeṣa as their god. From the beginning, narration has been at the center of human groups, keeping them together and organizing their habits and goals.

The original PIE root is *pau-² 'To cut, strike, stamp'. Some other English cognates from that root include account, amputate, compute, count, depute, dispute, impute, repute from Latin putāre 'to prune, clean, settle an account, think over, reflect'.

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    +1 The English verb tell also means to count, of course. As in sense 6 here Jul 25, 2022 at 21:38

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